02.15.16

When We Get Personal

In this series of posts, we’ve attempted to describe a few possible reasons why people who love the Church and want to see it healthy find themselves disagreeing with each other. Sometimes it’s because they mistake peace for health. Sometimes they disagree because their basic temperaments or outlooks differ. At other times the disagreement arises from fundamentally different visions for the Church.

In this post I’d like to offer one final suggestion for why people who share theological commitments, basic agreements about ministry practice, and love for the Church can end up at odds. Sometimes things get personal.

To be accurate, when things get personal we’re really not talking about the Church any more; we’re talking about each other. We attack the person rather than the idea. The real loser in such circumstances are the local congregations who need us to focus on matters related to health. 

Artful Dodging 

We’re being “treated” (forcibly) to a non-stop illustration of ducking issues by attacking people: the presidential primaries. It seems national candidates do everything they can to be vague about policy and pointed about rivals. The guys and gals smeared the most lose elections while those who do the smearing tend to win. Our electoral politics is nasty business. It starts out as a beauty pageant and ends in mud wrestling.

That’s why we don’t want the violent and quarrelsome to lead us (). That spirit has no place in Christian discourse. We are to answer gently that we might win some to repentance ().

But nowadays (perhaps in all days?), people study and practice the artful dodge. Rather than answer a question, they learn how to reject the premise to say whatever they like. Rather than give an account for earlier comments, they switch the subject. The most artistic dodgers of all use personal attacks while keeping their views on the subject safely in the shadows.

You Are the Man!

How do we see personal attacks in discussions about the Church? I can think of four common methods.

In some discussions we question a person’s theological bona fides. “He’s gone liberal” is an easy (and lazy!) way to shift conversation from the substantive topic to the person instead. It’s the kind of charge that questions a person’s loyalty while, in evangelical circles at least, tossing aside the true subject with a pejorative. We might know this move by another name: tribalism.

Tribalism can emerge along theological lines. But in African-American circles, tribalism also can emerge along inside/outside the Black Church lines. We hear people saying that discussion of the well-being of the Church–especially anything critical–is off limits to those who “don’t belong to the Church.” Only insiders may comment–and they may only do so inside. There can be a kind of gnostic tendency, a pretension to a secret knowledge available only to the initiated. So, white observers need not comment. Black Christians worshipping in non-Black contexts aren’t qualified. The person is rejected as not part of the tribe while the issue of the Church’s health goes unaddressed.

There’s a more pernicious form of personal attack that dodges the issue: Question a person’s identity. You don’t even bother to negatively label the idea; you just call into question their embodiment, knowledge and experience of some “true” identity, belonging, and loyalty. Taken to certain lengths, this attack ends with questioning whether the person is “truly a Christian.” In ethnic terms, this attack doubts whether the person is truly African American, “Asian enough,” a loyal Hispanic, etc. If successful, it shuts down the conversation and the person so attacked. We have a list of terms used to do this. Some people are forever questionable because someone cruelly used this tactic.

Finally, you can dodge serious questions about church health by using guilt by association. A conversation can be shut down with as little as knowledge of a person’s friends or their appearance with someone else. You know how it goes. “Wait, isn’t he Southern Baptist?” “Doesn’t he hang out with ____?” “I know he used to be a member of ____?” “He spoke at the same conference as ____.” Most ungracious and sinful of all is, “Ain’t he married to a white woman?” We should all be incensed any time we hear someone prejudice a conversation about the Church we love by going after someone’s spouse. God made that spouse white, Hispanic, or whatever for His glory and chose them to be part of His Church. Dismissing someone because of their spouse is an attack–along with all the other examples given here–beneath the dignity of God’s people.

For Best Results Use in Combination

People who like to dodge the true issues by getting personal can be so skilled they actually combine their attacks. They throw their punches in combinations. 

For example, a romantic member of the Black Church playing the “you ain’t black” card can banish others as “outsiders” while positioning themselves as the loving insiders. Throw in a “Doesn’t he hang with ___?” or an “Ain’t his wife white?” and it’s nearly game over. 

The evangelical realist playing the theological tribalism card can go on their merry way as “defender of truth” if they use a guilt by association (say, with a known “liberal”) combined with an “I’m not sure he’s a Christian.” Never mind the “defender of truth” actually sacrifices truth by failing to consider the arguments of others.

In the end, whenever someone intentionally deploys a dodge like this rather than addressing the issue, they are practicing deceit. Like presidential nominees, they are trying to keep their audience from seeing or considering something. Any listener who stops with such ad hominems robs himself of an opportunity to learn and grow from one who disagrees with them. We should always look to learn from others, especially fair-minded people who see things differently.

An Unworkable Worldview

But there’s another problem with the personal attacks that forbid “outsiders” from speaking into a situation: we cannot safely live with such a worldview. 

Think about it this way: How many of us, if told by a doctor, “You have cancer,” would ask the doctor, “Do you have cancer, too?” And if the doctor said, “No,” how many would then say, “You can’t talk to me about my cancer?” If a mechanic said our car needs a certain repair, we don’t rule them out if he doesn’t drive a car just like ours. No rational person does that with anything. Instead, we ask questions like: “How do you know I have cancer/need a repair?” “What is the treatment?” “What is the cost?” Or, “How long do I have/can I drive the car without repair?” Consider how much of our lives would screech to a halt if we only accepted truth from people just like us. But I observe people doing just this quite frequently.

The question that matters most in everything from a doctor’s report to conversations about the Church is… “Is this true?” It doesn’t matter who tells you the truth among brothers. What matters is that they did so. Truth is always a gift. Even when someone stumbles or apparently has mixed motives, truth-loving people must chew the fish and spit out the bones. It’s the only way to live.

When It Gets Personal Everyone Loses

Let me end by saying personal attack tactics actually do more harm to the Church than open conversation about the Church we love. Personal attacks establish and reinforce a hegemonic rule that strangles the Church by silencing conversation. When that happens, weak arguments and weak minds tend to rule. Things needing attention are locked behind doors of slander and suspicion.

But God’s people only benefit by instruction, reproof, correction and training in righteousness (). That’s how the people of God are thoroughly equipped for every good work. We grow into the full measure of Christ by speaking the truth in love to one another (). Sometimes the artful dodge robs the Church of the truth that helps her grow. When we allow people to dodge plain presentation and discussion of the truth (), everyone loses.

not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. (ESV)

24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, 26 and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. (ESV)

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (ESV)

15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, (ESV)

But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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